bynkii (bynkii) wrote,
bynkii
bynkii

Stupidity in large numbers doesn't equal smart

It just equals mass stupidity.

One of the things I rant about regularly is the tendency towards "echo chamber" behavior in the "blogosphere". That is, one site publishes something and dozens more all automatically agree with it, even if it's stupid. Sometimes, especially if it's stupid. Now, this is nothing new. Echo chamber behavior has been going on as long as there have been people. It's just that the intarweb makes it happen so much faster. A great example of this was the somewhat recent dustup about Harry McCracken at PC World. He quit to preserve his "journalistic integrity". Everyone came down on Colin Crawford, because, supposedly, Colin didn't like an article that was critical of advertisers. This idea was ridiculous if you have followed the publications Colin's run, but once the "blogosphere" echo chamber got ahold of it, bang, done. The funny thing was, out of all the posts about it on Techmeme, there was pretty much one original article. The rest all linked to/quoted that. It was a "big" story, but only one person did any actual work. Everyone else? LinkLinkLinkLink.

The result? Echo Chamber at warp speed.

Some other folks are noticing this, such as Tim O'Reilly. In a recent post on O'Reilly radar, he says:
There's always a risk of self-fulfilling prophecies in social media. Sites or applications become popular, and then stay popular because they are popular. This may be a key to the unusually high concentration of Facebook applications in the "short head" rather than the "long tail." When a system provides powerful feedback mechanisms for herd behavior, it can actually undermine the "wisdom of crowds" rather than enhancing it. (One of James Surowiecki's key observations in his book of that name was that a diverse collection of independently-acting individuals produce the wisdom of crowds effect. To the extent that those individuals reinforce each other's opinions rather than preserving independent decision making, they tend to undermine that group intelligence.)

But there's an even more insidious corollary: when a group of seemingly independent actors are making decisions based on the same limited pool of information, they become more highly correlated, and thus "stupider."
Now, in this paragraph, Tim is specifically talking about things like Facebook, but it applies to the way the "blogosphere" works in general. Don't believe me? Take a look at what happens when Scoble or Winer say something stupid. (It doesn't take long.) Because they're "A-list" bloggers, they get up on Techmeme. Of course, this prompts a dozen or more posts that are little more than comments on what the original stupid was, but these new posts are not commentary or analysis. For the most part, they're an electronic version of Limbaugh "dittoheads". But they keep that original stupidity going, and suddenly, the stupid has become the truth, because there's so many people talking about it like it's true. It's "The Big Lie", only at speeds that make worldwide propagation nigh-simultaneous.

(As an aside. I am not saying that you should never comment on someone else's post, or write your own article about another post. Since this article, and quite a few of my other posts are literally, about other posts, that would be silly. But don't *parrot* the posts. It is the *parroting* that creates the echo chamber.)

Later on in the article, Tim directly addresses this:
So what does this have to do with techmeme? When reviewing the Techmeme leaderboard, and then bouncing from there over to Techmeme itself, I was struck by the fact that the surest way to stay up on the leaderboard is to make sure to comment on stories that are currently appearing on the front page of techmeme! This is a self-reinforcing system, where all of the major tech blogs end up covering the same stories. Yes, someone always breaks the news, but you see this amazing pile-on effect. I'm not sure it's healthy.


Pile-on = echo chamber.

It's not just Tim O'Reilly talking about it. One of my favorite Chuqs, in fact, the only Chuq I know talks about this too, and uses the iPhone as an example. He has a great quote on this effect:
The first thing an echo chamber does is convince itself it's not an echo chamber
Chuq further uses the Apple TV and the iPhone to illustrate not just how silly the echo chamber can be, but how self-delusional.
Classic cases of this are the iPhone and the Apple TV. Both are products that are built for consumers, and while they have strong geek attraction, they aren't built and designed for geeks. Geeks complain about things these products don't do. Apple ignores them. Geeks try to spin them into failures because they don't cater to geeks. the product sells zillions of units anyway. The geeks brains hurt.
Dear lord yes. If you tool around the "blogosphere", you'd think both were utter failures, or the tools of ultimate evil because they don't cater to geeks. But that's not really the case:
for instance, best as I can find, the new generation Tivo sold 30,000 units in the first few months. Apple TV? 250,000 units. Yet you look around the geek echo chamber, and they declare the Apple TV a failed product, while drooling over Tivos. Of course, if you read Sean Avery's NY Times article this week, you'll see he calls out his Apple TV as a toy he loves. It's a great product. Just not a geek product. But since all products ought to be geek products -- that makes it a failure inside the geek echo chamber.
One thing to keep in mind about the "blogosphere": the number of Scobles in it far outnumber the number of normals. That is, regardless of how many people chant the mantra of the blogosphere, "it is the ultimate in democracy, and therefore the perfect medium", the truth is, it's still mostly made up of technophiles. Crap like Techmeme and Digg exacerbate this to where most of the volume is from a crowd of geeks and technophiles, all convinced that they are the true force in making great products. This is hilarious when you consider how few of them have ever created anything beyond geek toys. Winer's one of the few who ever did anything for normal people.

Another example is the hue and cry over iPhone unlocking. If you believe the blogosphere, everyone wants this. That's crap. Geeks want this, and the only numbers I've seen, (courtesy of Chuq), look like, at most, ten percent. Now, ten percent is a decent number, but it's not a majority, it's not even a large minority. But it is a loud minority. Or as Chuq says, (he thinks the unlocking numbers are closer to 5% rather than 10%):
Still not a small number: 5% of a million iPhones is 50,000 iPhones; a great little cottage industry, but it's still ONLY 5%. And for all of the geeks who want the iPhone to fail because it doesn't do all the things THEY want, and obviously, everyone wants those things.

Except, of course, Apple's selling hundreds of thousands of iPhones. Why? because if you get outside the geek echo chamber, most people don't CARE about what the geeks care about. They want the iPhone.
That, by the way, makes geeks crazy. Just frothing at the mouth nuts. They won't admit it in "public", not ever, but deep down, they know that they are this minority, and the iPhone, and the Apple TV, and the Wii are all wildly successful without their approval. Even worse? The manufacturers of those products don't give a rat's ass about geek approval. Telling geeks that "As it turns out, selling to everyone but you is a much better idea than not" makes their insecurities rise to the fore in a big way. Once that happens, well, even reality doesn't mater.

Just because a lot of people agree on something, they're still wrong. They're just louder about it.


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